An Opportunity We Can't Afford to Miss: Creating a Global Ecosystem for Learning and Innovation

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This essay was submitted to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity and can also be found here.

Last Autumn, the 193 Member States of the United Nations set a remarkably ambitious--and incredibly important--goal for countries around the world: to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for all in just 15 years.

If the international community is to come close to achieving this bold goal, continuing business-as-usual approaches for improving the quality and reach of education will not be sufficient.

The multilateral and philanthropic communities must embrace the need to support three critical, interrelated objectives: first, achieving a dramatic increase in the amount of innovation happening in the delivery and quality of education in communities around the world; second, significantly strengthening the leadership capacity of local communities, so that they can drive and scale those innovations; and third, developing effective cross-border channels for sharing solutions among communities that, regardless of where they might sit on the map, face similar challenges.

Successfully meeting these objectives will require a robust, mission-driven global ecosystem--one comprised of new partnerships between bilateral and multilateral donors, the philanthropic community, and global organizations. These must be able to catalyze local innovation, strengthen local capacity, and create new pathways for sharing community-level innovations.

I have seen the dramatic impact that such an approach can have at a national scale in the United States. Here, the federal government, in partnership with national philanthropies, fosters a dynamic national ecosystem that catalyzes the development of innovative local initiatives within regional communities and enables those communities to learn from each other.

One way the U.S. government has provided critical support for this national ecosystem is through a U.S. Department of Education competitive grant program called Supporting Effective Educator Development (or SEED). SEED's success could help inform the Education Commission's approach at a global scale.

In 2011, SEED was created by setting aside a small fraction (ranging over the years from 1.5 percent to 4 percent) of the $2.3 billion allocated directly to U.S. states for teacher development to fund a competitive grant program for national nonprofit organizations that support innovative, alternative teacher training and development programs in partnership with local school districts.

With only modest grants, SEED has provided critical support to more than a dozen organizations that pursue innovative approaches to professional development for educators. For example, the national education nonprofit The New Teacher Project (TNTP) is helping three school districts create their own teacher certification programs--so that they can train and develop teachers with the exact skills and expertise they need in any given year, instead of relying solely on universities and other organizations to match the supply of new teachers with actual demand. While the programs are customized to the specific priorities of each district, TNTP acts as a clearinghouse to help each program learn from the successes and challenges of the others.

Alongside TNTP, Teach For America, the Knowledge is Power Program (or KIPP), and other recipients of SEED grants have been key sources of innovation and shared learning in how the U.S. can best support professional development among educators.

SEED has another key design element: it requires grantees to provide evidence of their effectiveness, which helps to ensure investments are targeted towards organizations that are not only innovating, but getting results. Equally important, this requirement fuels a greater body of evidence for the entire field, fostering new knowledge for others to learn from that wouldn't otherwise exist. The New Teacher Project, for example, is undertaking an independent external study of the effectiveness of its district-led certification programs, which will be shared broadly with the entire teacher preparation field.

In short, the U.S. government's programmatic innovations are amplifying the ability of non-profit actors not only to innovate themselves, but to share those innovations widely, thereby driving excellence and accelerating the pace of progress.

One of the greatest barriers to achieving transformational change on a global scale is that there aren't many, if any, global investment mechanisms from the multilateral and philanthropic communities that fuel non-state efforts to build the capacity of locally led, funded, and governed initiatives and to ensure that that they learn from each other across borders. We believe that building this global ecosystem alongside a more intentional and significant investment in the development of local leadership capacity will dramatically accelerate innovation and learning.

The Education Commission is uniquely positioned to help bring this much-needed global ecosystem into being. Recommending that just a fraction of the international aid community's current investments be directed towards non-profit actors would begin to catalyze this global community of innovation, learning, and capacity building--and significantly increase our chances of achieving transformational progress on the global scale that we all seek.